Blank Space Policy by USCIS Leads to Rejections

Blank Space Policy by USCIS Leads to Rejections

USCIS recently signaled a plan to expand the “no blank space” policy to multiple applications and petitions. Last year, the agency deviated from the established policy without notice, rejecting forms with questions left blank, even if the question did not apply. It seems that the agency began enforcing specific terminology to indicate whether a question was inapplicable.

An AILA policy brief pointed to the capricious examples: “These rejections are particularly egregious as the majority of rejected applications left spaces blank for information that was not relevant to an individual’s eligibility, such as leaving blank the space asking for an individual’s name in a native alphabet when the native alphabet was the same as English.”

USCIS has proposed updating form instructions to include language to reinforce the “no blank space” policy. USCIS first rejected Forms I-589 in late 2019 (asylum) and I-918 (U status) in spring of 2020. The policy shift was not announced to the public before taking effect, leading to increases in rejected applications for technical, non-substantive reasons. AILA examined I-589 rejections and found the most common spaces left blank (see the chart below).

AILA reported that even if form instructions dictated otherwise, forms were rejected for using terminology other than N/A.

There are also numerous ambiguous uses of the words “if any” or “if applicable” after many questions. The use of these words makes it seem that, if the question does not apply to the applicant, then it is acceptable for the applicant to skip the question. Despite the inherent ambiguity of the forms, failure to include N/A, when appropriate, resulted in rejection of the application.

Even where there is no ambiguity, rejections appeared to contravene the plain language of the instructions. For example, the instructions for Form I-589 read:

If any question does not apply to you or you do not know the information requested, answer “none,” “not applicable,” or “unknown.”

In many of the cases examined, however, the only accepted answer for questions that do not apply to the applicant is “N/A.” Applications that used other terminology enumerated in the instructions, such as “none” or “not applicable” were rejected.

When could this extend to other forms? 

USCIS has already begun to update form instructions or proposed form instructions removing the “if any/if applicable” language. Forms I-290B and I-929 have already been updated, but we are likely to see more to follow. USCIS may not announce when the “blank space policy” is extended to other forms.

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